The strongman of Nandigram — the place which catapulted Mamata Banerjee to the Chief Minister’s chair — and her minister-cum-right-hand man for years, 50-year-old Suvendu Adhikari is now her bitterest foe and angriest challenger back where it all began. Nandigram.
Till he quit the Trinamool and joined the BJP in December, taking the flag from none other than Amit Shah himself, Suvendu Adhikari had seldom made it to national headlines. The one time he did was not flattering. In 2016, as one of the dozen Trinamool leaders caught on camera allegedly accepting wads of cash from a sting operator posing as a businessman — the Narada scam.
When he started inching towards BJP, many shrugged it off as an escape route from the central agencies, in the footsteps of other Trinamool leaders who featured in the Narada tapes. But Adhikari has managed to live that down with his vitriolic attack on Mamata Banerjee, culminating in his complaint to Election Commission about flaws in the nomination papers of his former boss and seeking her disqualification.
“Outsider” — he has called the chief minister of Bengal, asking for votes in the name of ‘bhoomiputra’.
Why the falling out? After delivering Nandigram to the Trinamool in 2007, Suvendu Adhikari’s stature in the party peaked and he became head of the Trinamool Youth Congress. Then in 2011, Mamata Banerjee set up Trinamool Yuva and put nephew Abhishek at its head. In 2014, Trinamool Yuva and Trinamool Youth Congress were merged and Abhishek named president. Ever since, Suvendu Adhikari has smarted at the sidelining.
“I have arrived neither by a parachute nor by a lift,” he famously said at a public rally at Nandigram, days before he jumped ship. “I have climbed up the stairs step by step by step.”
That he has. His first stop — the students’ union leader at his college in Kanthi in East Midnapore district where he lived. His father Sisir Adhikari is a Congress old timer who joined Mamata Banerjee in 1998 when Trinamool came into being.
The influence of the Adhikari family in East Midnapore district has been traditionally strong, since the Raj when members of the family made a mark as freedom fighters. Sisir Adhikari is the MP from Kanthi since 2009 and an MLA from the district since 2001.
Suvendu’s younger brother Dibyendu is also a Trinamool MP. The youngest brother Soumendu was the chairman of the Kanthi Municipality till Trinamool removed him earlier this year.
In 2007, when the then CPM strongman Lakshman Seth put out notices in Nandigram announcing land acquisition for a chemical hub, Suvendu Adhikari is credited with galvanizing the people there against the project. An apolitical body, Bhoomi Uchched Pratirodh Committee, came up as an umbrella organization for disgruntled farmers who did not want to part with their land for the chemical hub. Suvendu Adhikari steered the outfit’s protests against the CPM and even engineered the use, eventually, of force.
In 2009 and 20014, he was elected MP from Tamluk in East Midnapore district but in 2015, Mamata Banerjee yanked him back to Bengal to help run the party and be part of the government. Mr Adhikari fulfilled these roles, clearly satisfactorily, because he was given more and more responsibility and the ticket to Nandigram Assembly in 2016.
Mr Adhikari entrenched himself in Nandigram ever since and began an outreach — for the party — beyond East Midnapore district. He was in charge of the West Midnapore district since the Maoist upsurge there in 2008. Additionally, he was made the observer for Bankura, Purulia and the Congress stronghold districts of Malda and Murshidabad.
He delivered, but was upset that a second set of leaders were also being put in charge of the same districts, including Abhishek Banerjee.
In 2020, the post of observer done away with and Suvendu Adhikari felt targeted, his wings clipped and that’s when he started skipping party meetings, signaling that his time in the Trinamool Congress was up.
The countdown, however, may have begun much earlier. In his speech on December 19, 2020 at Midnapore town, where he took the BJP flag from Amit Shah, he shared a detail Trinamool claims was a giveaway.
Suvendu Adhikari said he had been in touch with Amit Shah since 2014.
As a fellow MP, he may well have met Mr Shah in Delhi. But Trinamool claimed it was a long-planned betrayal, going back to his association that he has himself admitted with the RSS when he was in school. The moment he quit, Suvendu was labelled Mirjafar.
It is a label that must hurt. The only way he can perhaps live it down is by a win at Nandigram.
This is not easy with a 30 per cent Muslim vote stacked against him, which is why perhaps he is attacking Mamata Banerjee lately for her appeasement politics, but with caution.
“She has stopped saying Inshallah and Khuda Hafiz these days,” he said recently, challenging as flawed her recitation of the Chandipath, prayers to Goddess Durga. “She says I am a Hindu girl. Why is she having to say all this? She is a Banerjee. A Hindu.”
His attacks echo that of UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath who has said at a public rally in Purulia on 16 March, “Parivartan is already happening in Bengal. Mamata Didi is now going to temples and reciting Chandipath.”
Suvendu is also frequenting temples, with tilak on his forehead and in traditional dhoti kurta, very different from his trademark ministerial garb of starched white shirt and white trousers.
He has never publicly claimed the chief minister’s chair. But the day he joined the BJP, Amit Shah described him as a bhoomiputra.
And has been saying since then, don’t worry, BJP will not impose an outsider as Bengal chief minister. Bengal will get a bhoomiputra as chief minister.
Suvendu Adhikari has every reason to hope. If not chief minister right away then a high post in government, higher than the three portfolios that Mamata Banerjee had given him. But for that, the BJP has to win Bengal and he has to defeat his formidable rival at Nandigram and the current occupant of the coveted chair first.
Is the strongman of Nandigram up to it?